Saturday, October 21, 2017

"Getting Orwell wrong" -- My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

[Photo of  Julian Barnes © Alan Edwards]

In the New York Review of Books not long ago, the well-known British author Julian Barnes ran his eye over some compilations of George Orwell’s work. Thinking about the school where a young Orwell was sent to live and learn, Barnes decides:
“You have to feel a little sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan Wilkes, or “Sambo” and “Flip” as they were known to their [students]. During the first decades of the twentieth century, they ran St. Cyprian’s, a preparatory school in Eastbourne, on the south coast of England. It was no worse than many other such establishments: the food was bad, the building underheated, physical punishment the norm… [The children’s] daily morale was dependent on whether a boy was in or out of favour with Flip.”
So Barnes would have us keep our sympathy for the pair of sadists who ran Orwell’s primary school like a hideous boot camp and he justifies their cruelty by maintaining that other schools were much the same. He expresses no feelings at all for the unfortunate people that Orwell spent time writing about in his essays ‘How The Poor Die’ or ‘The Spike’ (destitute tramps).
Just as importantly though, according to Barnes (as an adult), Orwell was a “moralist and a puritan”. But a single quick read of Orwell’s novel “1984” would show you that Orwell was well-versed in matters of the flesh and desire. The sexual relationship between the main character Winston and his lover Julia makes it abundantly clear that Orwell was no puritan. (Apparently, away from his writing Orwell was somewhat of a lech, whose methods of seduction occasionally included the sudden kiss and grope technique).
As far as Orwell being a moralist, of course Barnes is right. I have read all of Orwell’s non-fiction (much of it several times) and can see that there is hardly a sentence that does not have a moral aspect to it.
But Barnes is using the word moralist as uncomplimentary in his book review. The question must be whether someone’s morals are humanitarian and progressive morals, not whether they have any at all. An absence of morals or ethics is a vacuum of beliefs about how we treat each other.
He also correctly criticises Orwell for being wrong about the future, and Orwell was certainly mistaken about some aspects of the “1984 Orwellian world”. For example, the state is shrivelling rather than being the monster machine Orwell predicted. That function has been assumed by international capitalism rather than international government.
Julian Barnes also says that Orwell “is deeply untheoretical and wary of general conclusions that do not come from specific experiences.” But of course a thought is an experience and when it is repeated then built on it can become un-singular enough to produce theories.
I think Orwell was profoundly theoretical, in fact. He simply did an excellent job of disguising it because he did not trust in ideas alone. A good idea can quickly become a bad one when it bumps up against the physical world and human nature. Communism is an example of this, as he discovered.
I think it would be more accurate to say that Orwell was certainly suspicious of those who did not ’love the soil’ as he did. He had a sensible distaste of pretence, pomposity and the grandiose. In short, he disliked intellectuals as a species but used his intellect to point out his own shortcomings as well as those of others.
Barnes is wrong to say that Orwell was “deeply untheoretical” just because Orwell’s writing did not use obviously theoretical language. Underneath the plain phrases and continual drawing from his experiences, Orwell’s work was bursting with theories about the human condition.
It’s a pity that Barnes has seemingly missed that.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, October 2017.]

Friday, October 13, 2017

"Why Europe Needs a New Deal, Not a Breakup"

[Illustration by Curt Merlo.]

"The EU is facing a crisis of legitimacy—but retreating to the nation-state will only benefit the far right.




The American New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms combined the goals of financial stabilization, reconstruction, conservation, and employment—jobs for the jobless; public works; power systems and new industries, especially in the South; soil conservation and reforestation to battle the Dust Bowl; and a potent mix of regulations and insurance to assert public power over high finance.
Europe today needs all of these. Its overgrown banks, haunted by the specter of insolvency, are pushing households into foreclosures and evictions across the continent, and at an accelerating scale in the most depressed countries. 
States are bankrupt and will only become more so as the European Central Bank begins to tighten under pressure from German savers crushed by negative interest rates. 
Like America 80 years ago, Europe has a vast periphery. In its South, there is a semi-permanent Great Depression, whereas in the East there is great need for new and renewed industries, transport networks, housing, and social investments. Above all, Europeans need jobs.
Unlike the United States in the 1930s, Europe is also facing the menace of disintegration, as the absence of a democratic federal system has spawned a crisis of legitimacy. 
Paralysis in the face of deindustrialization and chronic unemployment is breeding a toxic politics throughout Europe, with a postmodern form of fascism threatening some countries and a sense of hopelessness elsewhere. 
Europe has not yet suffered ecological calamities comparable to those in the past few weeks in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico; but they are coming, in the form of droughts, rising sea levels, and (most immediately) unstoppable waves of refugees from conflict and climate change in the Middle East and Africa.
The Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) has therefore proposed a European New Deal (END), inspired by FDR but designed for European conditions. 
Chief among these is the sad fact that the European Union is a weak and limited thing—a confederacy, more or less. The crisis has made it virtually impossible even to discuss the creation of a US-style federation in Europe, with full powers to budget and mobilize for the emergencies at hand. 
European polities are so alienated by the authoritarian incompetence of the current leadership—exemplified by the crushing of the Greek government in 2015 and the heavy-handed approach of the European Commission to Brexit—that an increase in central powers (“more Europe,” as they say) would almost certainly meet heavy resistance. 
So it is necessary to work within existing charters and treaties to bring about stabilization by means of a European New Deal before hope is restored and the creation of new, democratic, federal, pan-European institutions—even a proper European Constitution—can be discussed sensibly and with cool heads.
To this END, we have proposed the following programs for all European countries, independent of whether they are in the European Union or the eurozone..."
Read more from source at The Nation here.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

"I Am Obliged to Reconsider My Support for the European Union"

Former diplomat Craig Murray makes a strong argument after seeing the Spanish state's police violence against voters at last weekends Catalan referendum.

"To my own astonishment, and after a full 36 hours of hard thinking to try and escape this conclusion, I am in intellectual honesty obliged to reconsider my lifelong support for the European Union, due to the unqualified backing of the EU Commission for the Spanish Government’s dreadful repression in Catalonia.

This is very difficult for me. I still much favour open immigration policy, and the majority of Brexiteers are motivated at base by racist anti-immigrant sentiment. Certainly many Brexiteers share in the right wing support for Rajoy’s actions, across Europe. I have been simply stunned by the willingness of right wingers across the internet, including on this blog, to justify the violence of the Spanish state on “law and order” grounds...
But not all who oppose the EU are right wing. There are others who oppose the EU on the grounds that it is simply another instrument of power of the global 1% and an enforcer of neo-liberalism. I had opposed this idea on the grounds it was confusing the policies of current EU states with the institution itself, that it ignored the EU’s strong guarantees of human rights, and its commitment to workers’ rights and consumer protection.
I have to admit today that I was wrong, and in fact the EU does indeed function to maintain the global political elite, and cares nothing for the people.
The Lisbon Treaty specifically incorporated the European Charter of Fundamental Rights into basic European Union law."

Read more from source here.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Catalans vote (while Schäuble-ism lives on)


Despite a heavy police presence and some shocking violence from the Spanish forces Catalonia's citizens voted today to at least try to express their wishes on the question of independence.

Meanwhile, over in Germany, as DiEM25 leader Yanis Varoufakis points out, the same bunch of economic masters (who have roundly ignored the growing acts of repression in Catalonia) are still in charge...even though their main man Wolfgang Schäuble has left the finance post.

Will there now be a clear response to the the Spanish government's anti-democratic tactics from Europe's high and mighty?

Sunday, September 24, 2017

"We will vote"

  
 Above is  a Catalan cartoon that shows how the Spanish media's coverage is likely to continue to be in the coming week before the Catalan independence referendum on October 1. 

Shown on the left is a crowd of peaceful protesters holding signs that say "We will vote" while on the right the Spanish press focuses on a single act of destruction.

I would suggest that it is not only Spain's mainstream media that makes this mistake.

(Found via http://www.valeriecollinswriter.com/)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

How "the crisis" overpowers national borders


[Photo: © CES - Centro de Estudos Sociais ]
  


















" 'This is a crisis caused by deregulated financial capital that speculates on the misery of the people. The more countries go bankrupt, the richer this system gets...'

The world today is facing a deep crisis. Yet at the same time, the neo liberal growth model is still presented as the only possible option. The Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos exposes the myth and made it his life’s mission to build an epistemology of alternatives."

Read more in English from source here.

Friday, September 15, 2017

"Who owns England [and Wales]?"















From this astonishing website which uncovers exactly why the "housing shortage" exists in the UK...


"Together, UK corporate bodies and overseas companies own around 13 million acres of land – roughly a third of England and Wales.


But who owns the remaining two-thirds? Aristocratic families and trusts? Farmers? Charities? Householders? It’s clear we still have much work to do…"



Interactive map also here.

Friday, September 8, 2017

"Tragedy in Turkey" -- My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

[Photo: EFE]

Where to begin when we look at Turkey? Here is a part of the world with so much culture and history in its favour but in the last couple of years it has become somewhere you would not choose to live and you would even have to think twice about visiting.
The biggest single reason for this is the country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has made an obvious grab at taking greater constitutional powers after a referendum on greatly extending presidential authority was narrowly passed. 
Unsurprisingly, the opposition No campaign disputed at least one third of the votes as being legally valid.
Erdogan’s clear intent is to move Turkey away from its secular, non-religious policy towards a much stronger and stricter Islamic state with him firmly in control. 
He has recently ordered that the teaching of evolution in schools should stop and that the death penalty should be reintroduced, through another referendum if necessary.
Aside from these backward ideological steps, his regime has taken to using a supposed coup last year as fair grounds for strangling basic freedoms. 
Thousands of ordinary people (including writers) have been imprisoned and tortured without good reason. 
Turkey now jails more journalists than any other nation – a third of the worldwide total – largely on the flimsy pretense of them being terrorists. 
During the summer, two local Turkish leaders from the respected human rights organisation, Amnesty International, were also locked up.
I find all this so sad for political reasons but also for more personal ones. My family and I spent a week based in the [country] a couple of summers ago and were enchanted by it. 
As well, I once taught at an Islamic secondary school in Australia and have very fond memories of my Turkish-Australian former colleagues and students there. 
They were the warmest of people and I still have Turkish friends now, who are some of the most generous and lovely individuals you could ever wish to meet and spend time with.
Going backwards
Turkey has been a cultured, open-minded society for some time now, especially since revolutionary figure Kemal Atatürk led his people towards becoming a more modern European-influenced society. 
Just two of his major legacies include greater equality for women and an educated middle class population that supported an Islam that was neither doctrinal nor overbearing. 
Even Atatürk’s simple decision to change the Turkish language to a Latin based script was enlightened.
This progress is now quickly being wound back under the heavy hand of Erdogan and his followers, who have been rammed into key government and legal positions. 
Some 100,00 public officials have already been dismissed from their posts, with almost half of them imprisoned on terror charges. 
Yes, Turkey hosts around three million more Syrian refugees than any other country, but many “face obstacles [in] education and employment.”
Academic and author, Mehmet Altan, could be speaking for most of his countrymen when he says: 
“Should the rule of law reign in Turkey again one day I am confident that I won’t be considered a suspect even for a second. I am a suspect now only because I demanded democracy.”

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, September 2017.]

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Barcelona: Design of minimum income experiment finalised

 "In October 2017, the city of Barcelona will launch a two-year experiment testing several variants of a guaranteed income and active policies to reduce poverty rates.

The project has been called B-MINCOME in reference to the Canadian province of Manitoba’s Mincome experiment, a guaranteed annual income trial conducted in the late 1970s... 
It will be conducted in the Besòs area, the city’s poorest region, and include 2000 households. These households will comprise a stratified random sample from Besòs area households which have at least one member between ages 25 and 60 and which are current beneficiaries of the city’s Municipal Social Services
The researchers conducting B-MINCOME are interested in the extent to which the SMI reduces poverty and social exclusion, and which particular models of SMI are most effective for this purpose. 
For instance, is the SMI more effective when combined with an particular associated policy, or with none at all? And is the SMI more or less effective if it is means tested?
To examine the impact on poverty and social exclusion, researchers will examine, more specifically, changes in labor market participation, food security, housing security, energy access, economic situation, education participation and attainment, community networks and participation, and health, happiness, and well-being.
Researchers will additionally examine whether the SMI reduces the administrative and bureaucratic responsibilities of social workers.
B-MINCOME is supported by a grant from Urban Innovative Actions (UIA), an initiative of the European Commission that supports projects investigating “innovative and creative solutions” in urban areas."

Read more from source here.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Images from the Stasi secret police files (of then East Germany)


Simon Menner

While conducting research on surveillance, I realized that the public has very limited access to images   showing the act of surveillance from the perspective of the surveillant. What actually is it that the Orwellian “Big Brother” gets to see when he is watching us?
For over two and a half years, I applied this question to materials from the former East Germany’s Ministry for State Security, commonly known as the Stasi, which had become publicly available after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Stasi was one of the most effective surveillance apparatuses ever. The quantity and breadth of the images I was able to unearth was surprising: images documenting Stasi agents being trained in hand signals, or perfecting the art of disguise; Polaroids taken during clandestine searches of people’s homes, to ensure everything could be put back where it belonged; photographs made by Stasi spies photographing other spies.
Many of the images shown here might appear absurd or even funny to us. But it is important not to lose sight of the original intentions behind these pictures—photographic records of the repression exerted by the state to subdue its own citizens. The banality of some of these pictures makes them even more repulsive. Many of the images are open to wide interpretation and could feed or confirm the suspicions of the Stasi agents viewing them. For example, the photograph of a Siemens coffeemaker: Is this West German consumer product evidence of contacts with Western agents? Or merely a present from relatives? The difference can mean years in prison, demonstrating one of the fundamental problems and limitations inherent to any and all forms of surveillance.
Presenting most of these pictures can be a double-edged sword. Many represent an undue intrusion into people’s private lives. Does reproducing them repeat the intrusion and renew injustices committed years ago? I grappled with this difficult issue and concluded that the pictures should be presented because they make an important contribution to discussions about state-sanctioned surveillance systems.
Simon Menner, November 2014
For fascinating and disturbing photo exhibition click here.






[Source and creator: Open Society Foundations. (Creative Commons license rules.)]

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Video: My latest interview with ABC TV (Australia) about the Barcelona terror attacks


Yesterday I talked via Skype to host Fauziah Ibrahim about the Barcelona terror attacks of 17 August 2017.  

Among other questions, she asked me about the reactions of people in the area and increased security measures.

(YouTube video also available here.)

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Barcelona terrorist attacks -- first interview with ABC Radio in Sydney







I spoke to Robbie Buck of ABC Radio Sydney soon after the tragic attack on Las Ramblas, Barcelona. Audio recording here starting at 09.50. 

I will be doing another interview with ABC TV News via Skype later today around 6pm Australian time.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

"What Works For Getting Kids to Enjoy Reading?"


Excerpted from “The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads” by Daniel T. Willingham...
  
Getting Kids to Rea

I said at the outset that our goal is simply to get kids reading—it’s reading, not positive attitudes toward reading that will make for better lexical representations and broader background knowledge. But then we saw that reading attitudes, reading self-image, and frequency of reading are interconnected. So in fact, getting kids to read will not only improve their reading, it will make them like reading more. Getting children to like reading more in order to prompt more reading is not our only option. We can reverse it—get them reading more, and that will improve reading attitudes and reading self-concept. Well then, how do we prompt a child with negative or indifferent attitudes toward reading to pick up a book?

Rewards? 

Adults are frequently confronted with children who don’t want to do what we want them to do. A common solution is to use rewards or punishments as short-term motivators. What if I told a fourth-grader, “If you read a chapter of that book, you can have some ice cream”? The child will likely take me up on the deal and it sounds like he’d have a positive experience. And that’s what we said we’re aiming for, positive reading experiences.

Rewards do work, at least in the short term. If you find a reward that the child cares about, he will read in order to get it. The problem is that you don’t get the attitude boost we’ve predicted. In fact, the attitude is often less positive because of the reward. The classic experiment on this phenomenon was conducted in a preschool. A set of really attractive Magic Markers appeared during free play, and the researchers confirmed that kids often chose the markers from among many toys. Then the markers disappeared from the classroom. A few weeks later, researchers took kids, one at a time, into a separate room. They offered the child a fancy “good player” certificate if she would draw with the markers. Other kids were given the opportunity to draw with the markers but were not offered the certificate. A few weeks later, the Magic Markers reappeared in the classroom. The kids who got the certificate showed notably less interest in the Magic Markers than the kids who didn’t get the certificate. The reward had backfired. It had made kids like the markers less.

The interpretation of the study rests on how kids think about their own behavior. The rewarded kids likely thought, “I drew with the markers because I was offered a reward to do so. Now here are the markers, but no reward. So why would I draw with them?” There have been many studies of rewards in academic contexts, and they often backfire in this way."

Read more from source here.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Video: 'The markets won't fix themselves' -- Yanis Varoufakis

                                                                                         
"“We have a major imbalance between savings and investment. We have the highest savings rates in the history of capitalism and lowest level of investment. You only have to state that to realise what the source of our troubles are.”

Speaking at FundForum International 2017, former Greek Finance Minister and DiEM25 Co-Founder Yanis Varoufakis sat down with FundForum Correspondent Emma Walden to talk about the state of global markets, the role that politics plays in economic stability, and what that means for investment in years to come."

Varoufakis understands that the democracies of the world have consistently rejected full-blown Communism. 

For this reason we all have to accept that a version of Socialism is the only option that can succesfully be advocated and implemented with the fair consent of the populace. 

To impose a system of government and economy on people without enough wider support is doomed to quickly fail. 

The people must be brought along by their leaders rather than dumped on. That is not utopian. It's practical. 

Wealth can then be redistributed with only the wealthiest against it happening. 

The DiEM25 movement backs this idea.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

"Discover Catalonia -- Routes and Getaways"

 An extremely detailed and well-produced English language PDF on the various parts of Catalonia (for tourists and travellers) is available for free here.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

"Echoes of history at Europe's borders"


"Almost a century after a mass “exchange” of Muslim and Christian minorities, the Aegean coast sees a new wave of refugees.



Last March, history repeated itself on Turkey’s Aegean coast after a 94-year hiatus. 

Across the water that separates the country from the northern Greek islands, boats carrying refugees – the vast majority of them victims of today’s wars in the Middle East – traced the journeys of the boats that carried unwanted Muslims and Christians between the newly formed Republic of Turkey and Greece in 1923, when the two countries agreed to exchange their respective minorities by mass deportation. 

It seems to be the fate of this misleadingly tranquil coastline, dotted with olive groves and fishing villages, to witness politicised human traffic on the borders of Europe.

Ayvalik lies just ten nautical miles east of the Greek island of Lesbos, on which thousands of refugees are still held in detention camps. The island of Cunda, accessible via a bridge from the main town of Ayvalik, is a sleepy harbour town of vague nostalgia and faded beauty, of crumbling villas converted into cheap hotels, and abandoned churches converted into mosques or automobile museums. The town has largely resigned itself to tourism, and several high-profile industrialists have built discreet holiday homes on its shores.

Until 1922, Ayvalik was an entirely Greek Orthodox town in the heterogeneous hodgepodge of the Ottoman Empire; a hive of trade and commerce, bustling with merchants, olive farmers and black-robed priests. All the Christians who once lived there were either killed in the last years of Turkey’s War of Independence (1918-22) or shipped off to mainland Greece in 1923, to be replaced by Muslim Ottomans, many of them from nearby Lesbos. In total, 1.2 million Christians were “exchanged” for 400,000 Muslims – almost the totality of each minority residing in the two countries, with the exception of those living in Istanbul and Western Thrace.

Today, the elder generations of the imported Muslims who replaced Ayvalik’s former Orthodox inhabitants sit playing backgammon under slowly turning fans in seafront cafés: weather-beaten but upright, dignified men chatting quietly in a mixture of Turkish and a Greek dialect learned from their parents, who were brought here from the Greek island of Crete in 1923. The dialect is Cretan, or “Giritli” as the Turks call it – a rougher version of standard Greek, incomprehensible to other Turks and to mainland Greeks."

 Read more from source at New Humanist here.

 

Friday, July 7, 2017

"Real red: Corbyn, Goytisolo and the rallying of the left" -- My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

Elections can be strange events. The British one last month produced a mixture of results but one thing it showed was that a genuinely democratic socialist government there is a distinct possibility after the next time the nation goes to vote again.

For the first time since the mid-1940s, the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, led by underdog Jeremy Corbyn is offering a collection of policies that are not a softer, pale imitation of the Conservatives and roughly supporting the economic and social status quo.

This Labour party with its election programme (or ‘manifesto’) was full of plans to tax the richest in society and increase company tax to pay for better public funding of schools, hospitals and social care, all of which have been cut away horrifically by the Cameron and May governments since 2010. In truth, many of these severe austerity policies had actually begun under previous Labour leaders in power.

Corbyn however has moved his party clearly to the left and many of his ideas proved to be popular during the last few weeks of the election campaign. Theresa May lost her majority in parliament but we simply cannot know for sure how much this was due to her bumbling campaign and how much credit Corbyn can rightly claim.

What we do know is that over 70 per cent of young voters in the 18 to 24 age bracket voted for Labour candidates. Partly, this must have been due to Corbyn’s policy of guaranteeing free university places for all, instead of the current system which demands exorbitant annual fees but it seems that his appeal was wider than just this one promise.

His more concrete and costed commitments to put the rail network back in public control and reverse the creeping sell off of the NHS public health system also appear to have found support from the young to the old. Labour’s pledge to raise the minimum wage to 10 pounds an hour was another vote winner. It showed that they have once again gone back to their red roots and are not afraid of being labelled radical by the establishment-controlled media.

Another progressive iconoclast who has lived by his left-wing beliefs and regularly paid a price for doing so is Barcelona-born writer Juan Goytisolo [pictured above], who sadly died at the age of 86 at his adopted Moroccan home in June of this year. As a critic of General Franco and conservatism in general, he was known across Europe for his books such as “Campos de Níjar,” a travelogue that detailed the harsh social and economic conditions in 1950s Andalucia (translated into English by Peter Bush.)

As a writer, I was also inspired by Goytisolo’s autobiography, “Forbidden Territory”. It is rare to read such brutal honesty about his own evolving sexuality and highly-personal inner landscape. Through creamy prose, he makes a sharp dissection of the “ill-formed universe” of his bourgeois upbringing. We can only hope to see others follow in his wake.


[This article was first published under the title "The rallying of the left" in Catalonia Today magazine, July 2017.]

Saturday, July 1, 2017

'Ours is not a bloodline, but a textline'

[Photo: EVDOKIM PEREVALSKY.]
 "I just found out only a few weeks before coming to Girona, that through the Horowitz branch of my family, I am Gironan, through my forebear Rabbi Isaiah Halevi Horowitz. This made me shudder a little bit, but I still don’t believe in God. I don’t think it’s a coincidence; I think it has to do with the secular movement of Jewish continuity."

Israeli writer and historian Fania Oz-Salzberger who was interviewed by Catalonia Today editor Marcela Topor here.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Video: 'Capitalism will always create bullshit jobs' | Owen Jones meets Rutger Bregman


"Rutger Bregman is the author of Utopia for Realists and he advocates for more radical solutions to address inequality in society. His ideas include the introduction of a universal basic income, a 15 hour working week and...open borders.

When I went to meet him, he told me politicians have failed to come up with new, radical ideas, instead sticking to an outdated, technocratic form of politics. He argues this has allowed politicians like Geert Wilders and Donald Trump to slowly shift extreme ideas into the mainstream.
"